Minor Thoughts from me to you

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How We Got "Please" and "Thank You"

How We Got "Please" and "Thank You" →

Maria Popova, at brain pickings, has this fascinating look at the history of why we say "please" and "thank you".

In English, “thank you” derives from “think,” it originally meant, “I will remember what you did for me” — which is usually not true either — but in other languages (the Portuguese obrigado is a good example) the standard term follows the form of the English “much obliged” — it actually does means “I am in your debt.” The French merci is even more graphic: it derives from “mercy,” as in begging for mercy; by saying it you are symbolically placing yourself in your benefactor”s power — since a debtor is, after all, a criminal. Saying “you’re welcome,” or “it’s nothing” (French de rien, Spanish de nada) — the latter has at least the advantage of often being literally true — is a way of reassuring the one to whom one has passed the salt that you are not actually inscribing a debit in your imaginary moral account book. So is saying “my pleasure” — you are saying, “No, actually, it’s a credit, not a debit — you did me a favor because in asking me to pass the salt, you gave me the opportunity to do something I found rewarding in itself!” …

The Problem with Gender Neutral Bibles

I stumbled across a very interesting essay by Vern Poythress. In it, he talks about gender neutral Bibles (like the TNIV, the Good News Bible, the CEV, etc) and how they can change the meaning of the Biblical text in subtle ways.

Language nerds will probably understand and enjoy it the most, but I think his examples are worth thinking about it -- even for those of us who aren't language nerds.

We may illustrate by considering the complex challenge of translating sentences with gender-marked generic pronouns. In English the issue comes to a head only with the third-person singular personal pronoun, because all the other pronouns are unmarked for gender. The third-person singular has three genders, "he," "she," and "it." Until recently the masculine forms, "he/him/his/himself," served as default forms in generic statements. But now some people frown on this use, and so-called gender inclusive translations have sought substitutes.3

Changing from "he" to "you"

One possibility they have tried is the use of the second person "you" instead of the third-person singular.4 Consider Proverbs 12:14. The New International Version (NIV) reads: "From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things as surely as the work of his hands rewards him." The Good News Bible (GNB, 2d ed.) reads: "Your reward depends on what you say and what you do; you will get what you deserve." The NIV and the Hebrew, by using the third person, invite readers to see a sample case "out there," and then to apply the truth to anyone whatsoever. Certainly each reader may apply to the truth to himself. But he may also apply the truth to others whom he is counseling, just as the father counsels his son in the early chapters of Proverbs. By contrast, the second-person in the GNB invites each reader to apply the truth first of all personally. Applying the truth to others by offering them counsel is an afterthought. The directness of focus on application to the individual reader is different in the two cases. The same differences crop up again and again in changes from third person to second person in Proverbs.

Read -- or at least scan -- the whole thing.

(And, yes, it's one reason that I'm reading out of the ESV and not the TNIV these days.)

Don't Use Useless Definitions

When writing, it pays to be as clear and concise as possible. This sentence (from Alliant Energy's "Monthly Natural Gas Update") is neither:

A decatherm (equal to 10 therms) is enough natural gas to heat an average home for 4.5 days.

It's not clear because I still don't know what a "decatherm" is. The parenthetical definition is useless unless you know what a "therm" is. If you did now what a "therm" is, wouldn't you likely know what the "deca-" prefix meant?

It's not concise because it includes the useless definition. So be both clear and concise: don't use useless definitions.

This entry was tagged. Language

If you've always wanted to learn Yuchi, now's the time.

Yesterday, as an example of how languages are constantly evolving, I taught my Writing & Grammar 9 students the origin of the English word "goodbye" (it started life as the phrase "God be with you" - just in case you didn't know).

Now I read an article I'll certainly be sharing with them tomorrow: according to the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages and the National Geographic Society, approximately 7,000 languages are currently spoken on Earth... and one of them disappears forever every two weeks.

Chances are nobody will remember them after they're gone, either, since roughly half of Humanity's languages have never been written down, and are only spoken by 0.2 percent of our world's total population.

The Living Tongues Institute is doing everything it can, of course, to record as many of these endangered lessons as possible before they go the way of the dodo, but it has its work cut out for it. The language of the Native-American Yuchi tribe - possibly unrelated to any other tongue known to Man - is now only familiar to five elderly men. Which actually makes Yuchi five times as well-known as Siletz Dee-ni or Amurdag.

According to the article, the director of the Living Tongues Institute is making a few noises about "the key to getting a language revitalized" being "getting a new generation of speakers", but we all know that's a fantasy. Whatever their historical value, languages thrive only so long as they are practically useful to their speakers. In the new global community developing before our eyes, obscure tribal languages simply have no compelling reason to exist. There's nothing for that.

Nor is there any reason to fret about it, I'll add, though I know that's easy for me to say, seeing as how I'm an American, and so popular is my language that I make a living teaching it to children in other countries. But listen: languages have always died or morphed beyond recognition over time. All that's noteworthy about the phenomenon now is simply the speed at which it is occurring.

Once upon a time, two cultures met and changed each other - or one swallowed the other - over a period of time measurable in hundreds of years. That same effect requires only decades today. We should be thankful for this, since - generally speaking - the evolution of a society has always been dependent upon its taking the best elements with which it comes into contact and allowing the lesser elements to fade away.

Still: I hope the Living Tongues Institute manages to record as many of these endangered languages as possible, in the interests of posterity.

This entry was tagged. Language

Ayn Rand's book, and its mirror

If you'd as recently as yesterday pitched me a story told through diary entries about love between two citizens of a collectivist government set in the distant future - a future in which the very word "I" is no longer remembered - I would have naturally assumed you were talking about Ayn Rand's Anthem, a novella she published in 1938.

As it turns out, the premise and general thrust of the book was undoubtedly pulled from another novel, written and published in Soviet Russia fully six years before Ayn Rand herself would immigrate from the USSR to America: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin.

I discovered this by accident; I was flipping through my mother's copy of a book entitled 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, skimming the chronologically-listed entries, when I stumbled upon We's description:

"We is a prototypical dystopian novel... The novel consists of a series of diary entries by D-503, a mathematician and a thoroughly orthodox citizen of the authoritarian, futuristic state to which he belongs. The diary sets out as a celebration of state doctrine, which dictates that happiness, order, and beauty can be found only in unfreedom, in the cast-iron tenets of mathematical logic and of absolute power. As the diary and novel continue, D-503 comes under the subversive influence of a beautiful dissident... He finds himself drawn towards... the anarchism of a private love. He no longer identifies with 'we'..."

The writer of the entry declares it "not a straightforward denunciation of communism, but a moving, blackly comic examination of the contradictions between freedom and happiness that state socialism produces."

The parallels to Anthem are obvious and too close to be coincidence, especially considering the two respective authors hail from the same country. And I'm not, as it turns out, the only one who's noticed; [Wikipedia](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthem_(novella) lists the similarities and differences between the two.

The question is of course begged, then, as to whether those similarities listed constitute a case of plagiarism. Ms. Rand being my favorite modern author for the last decade, I'm certainly biased, but my general understanding of creativity leads me to answer in the negative. Beginning from the same premise as an already-published work, even knowingly, is not plagiarism if a story proceeds to explore different possibilities allowed for by that base. This, even Wikipedia agrees Rand does.

Really, Rand couldn't help but do so; We _is a story about Collectivism gone as far as it can possibly go, but its conclusions as to where "as far as it can possibly go" is don't mesh with Rand's own beliefs. _We involves a society's evolution to the point of colonizing new planets; Rand cannot imagine that a collectivist state would ultimately result in anything but a new age of barbarism, so the collectivists of her Anthem are, many centuries after their ancestors built skyscrapers, technologically capable of manufacturing only candles. We is a comedy; Anthem is clearly frustrated, even enraged. We declares communism to be reasonable but ultimately monstrous; Anthem objects that there is anything reasonable in communism. Finally, We results in the protagonist's "reeducation", which is to say his demise; Anthem results in his triumph.

This last detail should not be overlooked as simply an arbitrary difference in plot. Involving any other two writers, it very well could be taken as such, but an important principle of Rand's Objectivist philosophy is the impotency of evil. The triumph of the hero in her books is a statement regarding the nature of the universe, which she believed "benevolent" (the only exclusion being her character Kira in We The Living, who's controversial death still makes Rand's followers uncomfortable).

Both books are anti-collectivist and involve several sci-fi propositions, but each proclaims a very different worldview - justification a-plenty for two separate stories.

Or even more, maybe, because I learned one more surprising fact from Wikipedia today when I looked up the book; _Anthem _entered the public domain in 1966, after Ms. Rand failed to renew its copyright.

Anybody have a good idea for an Anthem-based story?